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Billie Jean King: Celebrating a game-changer

Michelle Obama leads a rousing tribute to tennis legend Billie Jean King’s trailblazing fight for equal pay in 1972

Michelle Obama (second from right) and Billie Jean King (centre) at a ceremony in New York on 28 August.
Michelle Obama (second from right) and Billie Jean King (centre) at a ceremony in New York on 28 August. (Getty Images via AFP)

Ahead of the US Open in 1972, with many women players prepared to boycott it owing to the large variance in men’s and women’s prize money, Billie Jean King met the tournament director, Bill Talbert. She had an offer he couldn’t turn down: a pledge of $55,000 (around 45 lakh now) in additional sponsorship money from Bristol Myers to advertise their deodorant brand and equalise pay for women. Talbert agreed that the tournament would pay men and women equally from 1973.

This week, former US first lady Michelle Obama led a celebration of that event with a rousing tribute to King. Equal pay made the US Open a global pioneer as women had not been explicitly paid the same as men in any other sports event and indeed in few professions to this day. The women’s circuit, started in 1970 and sponsored by cigarette maker Virginia Slims, required such constant attention from King that she sometimes appeared on court for matches without having the time to warm up. She recounts spending the day in business meetings lining up financial support for the tournaments and then flying in a little before a match. This took such a toll on her, King reveals in her extraordinary autobiography All In, that by early 1972 she was contemplating retirement. Instead, she went on to win the French and US Open and Wimbledon that year.

It is to tennis’ credit that it never stops honouring King, 79. In 2006, the US Open’s stadiums and grounds were renamed the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre. At Wimbledon this year, King was invited to be the first to play on Centre Court. By odd coincidence, I chanced upon a copy of All In as I headed to Wimbledon on the day King was invited to, in effect, inaugurate Centre Court for 2023.

Published in 2021, it is one of the most inspiring autobiographies ever written. The moving account of the indignities this fireman’s daughter suffered as a young girl trying to make it as a junior player pull you into her story. As a 10-year-old, she was ordered out of a group photograph at a posh club in Los Angeles because she was wearing shorts, not a skirt. A coach, who supported and helped her as a junior, casually remarked that she would excel because she was “ugly”.

King went on to be a champion in the deepest sense of the word because she kept fighting for women’s equality and LGBTQ+ rights while giving her all on court. Despite several knee surgeries, she played till 1983, winning 39 titles at Grand Slam events, including 20 Wimbledon titles. One of her most impressive matches was one she lost, aged 36, to defending champion Martina Navratilova, then 23, in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 1980. King, who wore spectacles on court, battled through a drizzle early in the match and her glasses came apart in its closing stages. Navratilova needed nine match points to win the final set 10-8. What was on display was not just tennis, but a lesson in tenacity.

The most famous match King played, of course, was the Battle of the Sexes in 1973, just weeks after falling ill and nearly passing out on court at the US Open. In All In, King describes the buildup to that boxing-styled prize fight between two gladiators. She had been challenged by Bobby Riggs, a retired former Wimbledon singles champion in 1939, mostly known for a motormouth that spewed insults at women and women’s tennis. Ninety million people watched the match worldwide.

King, one of the great strategists of the game, ran the 55-year-old around the court till he was exhausted. She won in straight sets. After the match, Riggs confessed he had underestimated her. Half a century later, strangers still come up to King almost daily to congratulate her for that win. After all, it was not just a match, it was a message for the world: Never underestimate the strength of women.

Rahul Jacob is author Of Right of Passage, a collection of travel essays, and has covered Wimbledon for more than two decades.

Also read: A Wimbledon that seemed like a serialised fairy tale

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